While director Stanley Nelson was researching "The Negro World" newspaper, he became fascinated by the paper's founder, editor and contributor, and discovered no one had yet made a biography of controversial civil rights leader Marcus Garvey. To do justice to Garvey's life, Nelson interviewed a vast array of surviving members of the U.N.I.A. - The Universal Negro Improvement Association - which was founded to address the inequalities and fractured existence of the global negro population ; a remarkably bold organization, given the racist times of North American and European society at the turn of the century.
Though born in Jamaica, Garvey's prominence occurred in the United States, and Nelson's solid documentary follows this deeply human figure through his triumphs and failures, and his return to Jamaica, living out his tragic, final years. It was only after his death that Garvey's legacy was adopted by a wide array of social organizations, religious faiths, and future generations of civil rights leaders.
Nelson was lucky to find plenty of survivors, witnesses, U.N.I.A. members, and photos to build his brisk but informative narrative, but because his assignment was to deliver a biography to PBS, a few side panels of supportive documentation couldn't be included. The DVD contains these segments, accessible by pressing "Enter" when a highlight appears onscreen. The hyperlinked segments are: Before the Garvey Movement (3:50), A Typical Garveyite Family: Earl & Louis Little [Malcolm X's parents] (5:02), Women in the Garvey Movement (5:02), J. Edgar Hoover (5:16), Marcus Garvey & the Harlem Renaissance (5:37), Amy Jacques Garvey (4:20), and The Legacy of Marcus Garvey (12:26).
Additionally, director Nelson explains the doc's inspiration and goals, and editor Erskine details his work in two short interviews. The DVD also includes two Garvey speeches: "The Explanation of Objects of the U.N.I.A." (3:44), and goals to unify "The American Negro and West Indian Negro" (3:44). Filling out the disc is a sample of "The Negro World" paper, accessible by remote arrow keys; and short "video glossary" - snippets of historians Manning Marable, Robin Kelley, Kwaku Person-Lynn, and Robert Hill (all participants in the documentary) who explain key phrases and terminology.
The picture quality is excellent, and there's a good balance between film and video footage, with a well-balanced Dolby 2.0 surround mix. The real flaws are purely technical, and lie in the uneven volume levels of the director and editor interview segments. More severe, with obvious distortion, are the bonus segments, which no doubt will cause viewers to ride the volume knob between segments and feature material. The video levels are a bit hot on some interview subjects, particularly historian Robert Hill, who appears normal in the documentary proper, but suffers from heavy glare in the extra material.
Besides these modest flaws, PBS has delivered a DVD with high educational value - a truly commendable effort.
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan